Practising Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor Op. Posth. by Fryderyk Chopin

I wrote about practising this beautiful Nocturne a few years ago (you can read the article here), and it has become one of my most ‘viewed’ blog posts. This work is now especially popular partly due to the fact that it is on the current ABRSM Grade 7 syllabus (2017 – 2018). I was invited to rewrite the article for EPTA’s Piano Professional magazine; it was published earlier this year, and is more in-depth than the first one, with a few different practice ideas. I hope you find it of interest.


Fryderyk Chopin’s Nocturnes offer a rich array of depth, emotion and expressivity. Written between 1827 and 1846, they consist of 21 short pieces. The genre was developed by the Irish composer John Field, but Chopin expanded on this original conception, producing what are generally considered to be amongst the finest short pieces ever written for the instrument. This Nocturne was composed in 1830 for Chopin’s older sister, Ludwika, and was first published 26 years after the composer’s death. It is frequently referred to as the ‘Reminiscence’ Nocturne.

The Nocturne typically constitutes a romantic, dreamy character, suggestive of the night. The main feature of most Nocturnes is a beautiful song-like melody, often with melancholic overtones accompanied by a rolling unobtrusive bass. Ornament passages and filigree in the melody are commonplace, and the importance of the sustaining pedal cannot be overestimated, bestowing the overall dramatic effect. There are many variations, but the formula has produced some of the most haunting, emotional and exquisite piano music.

Whilst Nocturnes are generally slow and may sound fairly ‘straightforward’, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. A Nocturne, or any similar slower paced work requiring a cantabile (in singing style) touch and a deep connection with the key bed in order to produce a full, rich timbre, needs specific practice methods, and those ideas presented here could therefore be applied to a host of similar works.

During 2017/18, the piece featured on the syllabus of the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Grade 7 piano exam. So with this in mind, here are a few practice suggestions for students to digest and apply, with the intention of making the path to examination success a little smoother.

The opening chords can present a few problems and need consistent balancing; an active, strong fourth and fifth finger (used to colour the top line) must be combined with a ‘soft’ approach in the wrists so as to cushion the sound. A daunting opening such as this, where each note must sound fully, should ideally be voiced perfectly and yet still extremely soft. The trick (other than trying the concert or examination piano first!) is to focus on the top note (or melodic material) making quite sure it’s completely legato; ask students to change fingers, where necessary, keeping the legato line, and then combine with sparse pedalling. By making sure arm weight is transferred to the fourth and fifth finger (experiment by moving the right hand and wrist slightly to the right, away from the body, therefore providing more support for weaker fingers), pupils should be able to produce a full sound in the melody line allowing other notes  (accompanying chords) underneath to fade into the background.

I encourage students to join fingers wherever possible in a legato melodic line – it’s more effective than relying on the sustaining pedal. Play the remaining notes in the chords with a very relaxed arm and wrist, depressing the keys slowly, testing the key bed, checking where the sound kicks in. Note too that the repeat of the opening chordal passage must be played much softer, like an echo. Here’s the passage;

And the melodic line, which needs special attention (with suggested fingering);It can be helpful to practice the inner parts of the chords (as shown in the first example here) on their own, gauging the necessary feeling, balance, and sound in order to play sufficiently quiet, yet altogether. Add the top (melody) line when secure.

After the introduction, the remainder of the piece consists of a rolling, quaver bass constructed from arpeggio or broken chord figurations over which a captivating right hand melody prevails. There are many different layers of sound in this work requiring a whole gamut of touches and pianistic colour; the three layers at the opening can be separated and practised in isolation (from bars 2 – 5);

  1. The melodic material in the right hand:

     2. The broken chord quaver figurations in the left hand:

    3. The bottom of the chord (the bass line) which is usually the first quaver of every minim group which generally occur twice in every bar:

It’s always worthwhile practising the left hand alone for an extended period, until notes are fully grasped (it can help to know the patterns from memory too), because absolute consistency and evenness is necessary with regard to rhythm and tone.  Rubato (or taking time) is a feature of Chopin’s music, but even the composer himself apparently insisted on a rhythmical bass, proclaiming ‘The left hand is the conductor of the orchestra’, above which the melody can enjoy some rhythmical freedom.

Students might benefit from using a variety of touches when practising; start by playing the bass line fortissimo, playing deep into the key bed, because then it is easier to pull back and achieve a smooth, soft, even sound. The bass notes at the beginning of each broken chord are the most important as already mentioned, and need slightly more sound and a tenuto (or held) approach (this note can be held for a fraction longer than the other quavers), because it’s providing the bottom of the texture harmonically (the constant bass C sharps in the following extract. The example shows all three strands or layers of music from the examples above, combined (or as written));

It’s a good idea to be aware of the musical structure (which is ternary form) and the harmonic structure too, as this aids quick study, particularly if the piece is to be performed from memory.

Each quaver in the bass leads musically to the next, yet at the same time must provide the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ layer of sound, and therefore should generally be in the background with regards to volume. Try to avoid the temptation to ‘poke’ or ‘jab’ at notes.  To play these bass quavers evenly, it might be beneficial to play them in ‘blocks’ at first; blocking out chords involves playing the notes in each group (here, on every crotchet beat) all together, so the correct fingerings, hand positions and movement needed between notes is swiftly learned. When this has been done and thoroughly assimilated, ask pupils to play as written, encouraging the hand and wrist (especially) to roll from left to right, guiding the fingers into their positions, allowing fingers to ‘hover’ over the notes in preparation.

The large gaps between the notes in the left hand (i.e. between the C sharp, G sharp and the E, during the first two crotchet beats of bar 1, in the musical example above), is more comfortable with a wrist rotation (or lateral wrist movement), the hand moving quickly back to the C sharp on beat 3 (from the previous middle C (sharp) on the second quaver of beat 2 (bar 1)). To do this rhythmically and evenly, encourage students to stay on each note for as long as possible, quickly swivelling the fingers and hand into place in preparation for the next one; this way legato will hopefully prevail and there will be few gaps in the sound.

For note security and gradation of tone, the left hand can be practised without any pedal at first and certainly without rubato. As the bass part becomes more secure, so pedal can be gradually added. It’s crucial to constantly listen when pedalling; the pedal is often best controlled by the ear as opposed to written suggestions on the page. This might sound obvious but it’s easy to pedal mindlessly, not listening to everything clearly.  During the ‘busier’ passages, pupils might experiment with ‘flutter’ pedalling; where the sustaining pedal is constantly moving up and down (or hovering) in order to ‘clear’ the sound and avoid blurring too many harmonic progressions.

The melody, as with many of Chopin’s works, requires a real cantabile (or singing style) touch. It must soar above the bass and consist of a wonderful operatic quality synonymous with Chopin’s style (Chopin was reportedly a fan of the Italian composer Bellini’s operas). A free wrist with plenty of arm weight can provide a suitably rich, warm sound; even the pianissimos need some arm weight and the overall timbre should ideally project fully. The success of this line relies on  an understanding of the nuances of each phrase. Rather like sentences, a melody must have punctuation. Aim to study each phrase ‘feeling’ the direction of the music, seeking where the most important note or notes lie and adjusting the sound and shape of the phrase accordingly. Ask pupils to listen to where and how the melody rises and falls, therefore enabling dramatic sections to stand out musically. Space is vital in this work, so students must allow ‘breathing’ time between phrases.

The tricky ornamental or fioritura (or embellished) passagework and scalic runs can be negotiated by working again with a full sound (for practice purposes only), encouraging all fingers to play fully on their tips (particularly the fourth and fifths), and deeply into the keys, as opposed to sliding over the top (make sure the fingerings have been written in the score before practice begins). Then experiment with different types of articulation (staccato, non-legato, varying accents and dynamics); complete clarity is desired in every figuration, with all notes ‘sounding ‘equally, as opposed to being rushed or concertinaed together.

A particularly helpful method of practising trills, like that found in the musical example (in the right hand at bar 2), is to take the ornament out of context, working at it alone. Begin by securing the fingering (and sticking to it!), then ask students to play each note in the trill slowly and heavily, using the full force of each finger (always ensure a relaxed free wrist and arm, preferably after every note, so tension doesn’t arise). When the shape or pattern of notes has been understood, practice using accents on the weaker fingers, then on the stronger fingers.

Each note in the trill can be played twice or as a double note; every finger needs to enunciate the notes cleanly and with force here (but without any tension). Pupils can then play triple notes or triplets (three notes per trill note). When employing this approach, the wrist must be relaxed between every note, so the hand appears to be ‘bouncing’, as opposed to stuck in one position, which could indicate tension. By playing more notes than necessary, when the trill is played as written it feels much easier and more comfortable.

Elongating trills can also be useful, and by making them more challenging than originally written, when pupils return to playing Chopin’s score, inserting the ornaments into their rightful place, they seem much smoother and more controlled.

After practising the suggested methods using a distinctly heavy touch, a lighter finger touch should reveal even, accurate trills and florid passages, with fingers skating over the keys lightly. As with the left hand, work on the right hand separately until secure and confident. It might be a good plan to practice with the metronome until total rhythmic grasp is honed, and only then start thinking about rubato. Working under tempo is also advisable until any hesitations and insecurities have been ironed out, and coordination between the hands is exact.

Scale passages in the right hand from bar 55 onwards, can be contoured to ‘fit’ with the bass line; encourage students to mark the score at the most convenient ‘meeting’ places between the right and left hand passagework, and then stick to this every time during practice sessions; within a short space of time, these ‘meeting’ places will feel increasingly natural, and will eventually allow for more rhythmic flexibility. The left hand quavers will also need to be elastic rhythmically in order to accommodate the group of thirty-five right hand semiquavers at bar 56.

At bar 19, new material heralds the start of a less sombre section, characterised by a dotted rhythm and insistent triplet figure (which appears in the left hand from bar 31 to bar 42 (the main theme returns at bar 44). Chopin has marked all details very thoroughly, from dynamics (‘ff’ to ‘pp’) to the precise musical markings, which must all be noted.

If students can colour each layer of sound accordingly, and combine this with a thorough technical grounding, they will be on their way to creating a persuasive reading of this enchanting piece. And they will hopefully be able to tackle any subsequent Nocturne or similar work effectively, whether it be for a graded exam, diploma, or concert performance.

Suggested further reading:

Chopin, Pianist and Teacher; As seen by his pupils: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (published by Cambridge University Press)

After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton (published by Oxford University Press)

Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces Grades 1 – 8, 2017 – 2018 (published by ABRSM)

ABRSM Piano Notes 2017/18 (published by Rhinegold)

You can read the original article here: Practising Nocturne No 20 in C sharp minor by Fryderyk Chopin


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


 

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Selecting & Practising Piano Exam Repertoire: ABRSM Grade 2

Continuing my series on selecting and practising piano exam repertoire, today we  move on to ABRSM Grade 2. I’ve chosen three works (one from each of lists A, B & C) which are hopefully complimentary, offering a balanced exam programme, with five practice tips for every piece.

As always, selections come from the standard exam repertoire (as opposed to the alternative pieces). It’s possible to programme a large cohort of pieces, particularly for ABRSM exams, but I hope my selection offers lots of variety, both technically and musically. There are links to performances too (taken from the many on YouTube).

List A: A1, Allegretto (First movement from Sonatina No. 3 in F) by Thomas Attwood (1765 – 1838)

This joyful little piece, with a catchy tune, set in ternary form (A – B – A), was written by British Classical composer Attwood (1765 – 1838), who studied with Mozart. The texture is essentially melody and accompaniment. Start by dusting off the F major scale and arpeggio, which serves as useful preparation.

  1. Focus on the left hand, and play each half bar as a chord or ‘blocked out’ i.e. sound the F, A ,C of bar 1, beat 1 altogether, (this can be done in the right hand at bars 9 -18 too). Write the fingering in as you go, and note the necessary changes in hand position, to accommodate the movement around the keyboard (at bar 5, for example, where the left hand leaps to the treble clef).
  2. Now play the left hand quaver figurations as written, ensuring they are totally rhythmic and even. Either count aloud or use a metronome on every quaver beat. Keep fingers close to the keys for good control. It can be helpful to memorise the bars where the leaps occur (bars 5 and 26).
  3. The right hand needs a much deeper colour than the left. The melody would benefit from a smooth legato touch from bars 1 – 8 and 22 – 29. Using a relaxed wrist, encourage the hand and whole arm to assist the fingers in playing to the bottom of the key bed, producing a rich tone, and join each note carefully with no gaps in the sound.
  4. Balance phrasing in the right hand at bars 2 & 3, shortening the crotchet very slightly (before the quaver), playing it softly (phrasing off from the dotted crotchet). Aim to project the hidden melody at bars 9 – 16, formed of the first note of each group of quavers.
  5. Balance and coordination between the hands is crucial; slow practice, bar by bar will help with precise coordination between quavers in each hand especially (bars 4, 7, and the like). Try to keep the left hand much softer and lighter than the right. Add speed only when notes and fingering are secure.

List B: B 2, Waltz in G (No. 2 from Poklad melodií, Vol. 2) by Bedrich Smetana (1824 – 84)

A charming dance with a steady one-in-a-bar feel, written by Czech composer Smetana. This provides a contrast to the first piece (A 1), with its Romantic demeanour, and whilst it’s in the style of a Waltz, the title is apparently editorial! Working at the G major scale and arpeggio may be helpful as a warm-up.

  1. The right hand melody consists of phrases of different lengths which would profit from separate hand practice, and a deep but smooth (legato) touch. It can help to mark the most important note (or notes) within each phrase, contouring the dynamics to suit your markings. Listening carefully (especially to the ends of phrases) as you play will prove vital.
  2. The left hand can be ‘blocked out’; play each bar as one chord (as mentioned before), to learn fingerings and position changes, then give the first beat of each bar a slight ‘push’ or deeper touch, whilst keeping beats two and three softer, projecting the lilting Waltz character.
  3. The brief modulation to the minor (bars 12 -15) will require slow practice, in order to secure notes and fingerings and to accommodate the more unusual phrase breaks between the right and left hand. When playing on groups of black notes, move the hands slightly forward, placing fingers over the keys in preparation.
  4. There might be a temptation to rush bars such as those at bar 2, 4, 10 and 12, where both hands must coordinate precisely; set the pulse to a third of the intended speed, and work at the last two beats in the bar first (stopping on the first beat of the next bar), really listening, taking down each note (or group of notes) absolutely together. When secure, add the first beat of the bar.
  5. The last line particularly is full of accents, staccato, and tenuto markings, which must all be observed; insert these when notes are fully under the fingers. To place the last G in the left hand (bar 33) accurately, practice playing an octave lower than written (i.e. leap down two octaves as opposed to one!). When returning to playing as written, the jump will feel easier.


List C: C 1, The Cat from Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

For me, the third piece on any exam programme should be fun and perhaps slightly irreverent (especially for the lower grades). Many enjoy the jazzy pieces which pervade the C lists, but some of the other works are just as interesting. From Prokofiev’s orchestral masterpiece, Peter and the Wolf, comes this arrangement; the cat is characterized (and played) by the clarinet in the original version.

  1. Articulation rules in this piece. The contrasts between staccato and legato must be marked appropriately as they denote the cat’s impish, playful nature. Aim to use very short, spikey staccato; try tapping (or ‘flicking’) the keys with the top of the finger (pulling it inwards, towards the palm of the hand), leaving the keys extremely quickly.
  2. In both hands, quavers (playing the melody) need exact counting in order to ‘place’ each beat in the bar giving breathing space, but with no sense of rushing or pushing the beat. It can help to count in semiquavers.
  3. The C sharp (bar 1, beat 3, in the theme) is given a rich colour and slight tenuto (held or leaning into a note), and the C in bar 2 (beat 2), an appropriate accent, giving the melody shape. Each thematic appearance requires specific articulation in order to project the cat and its shenanigans.
  4. The left hand accompanies with short, well placed chords; play first alone (without the right hand), and place each one using a metronome, to make sure you are really playing on the beat. Sense of timing will make or break any performance.
  5. Tasteful appropriation of short phrasing and the many varied dynamic markings will ensure a colourful rendition; the printed narrative will aid the understanding of the piece (particularly for younger learners), but resist inclusion in the exam!


For other grades in this series please visit my archives by clicking here.

My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my two-book piano course, Play it again: PIANO (Schott). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, 49 progressive pieces from approximately Grade 1 – 8 level are featured, with at least two pages of practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.